On a warm May morning last spring I walked out of my house in San Clemente and down
the overgrown trail to Trestles’s for an early surf. I paddled out to glass and the peace that comes with a morning session. Tuesday morning, twenty surfers. A four foot swell coming in from the south, just above average waves in long sets, separated by 15 minutes of complete peace on the water. To my left, towards the enormous twin breasts of the San Onofre nuclear plant, ten surfers, all but one wearing a wetsuit. The one without a suit was well built, tan, with medium length dark hair tipped with blond from the salt and the sea.
After catching a wave and paddling back out, I found myself almost next to him, perhaps five feet away. As he turned away for a perfect left, I caught a glimpse of his back, a mass of criss-crossing scar tissue
, the white lines apparent against his surfer’s tan. Jesus, I thought, what happened to him? I saw him skim down the line, his head and shoulders rising and falling behind the crest of the wave he rode. He was good, smooth, with the kind of movement you get from long hours on the water. Forty minutes later both of us were still out there, and by chance, and I admit, some, I found myself next to him again.
I gave a nod. “Nice morning.” “Yeah, not many like these, eh?” He turned, looking for a set to roll in, and unable to contain my curiosity, I burst out. “What happened to your back?” He turned and looked at me. “What do you think?”
“Goddamn, looks like you fell in a thresher to me. When’d it happen?” The words ran away from me, and an embarrased silence filled the space between us. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be nosey.” I turned away, praying for a wave to come and let me ride off.
“In the spring of ’98,” he began, and I turned around. He smiled at me. “Not many people ask.”
He began again. “In the spring of ’98, my girlfriend and I sold most of what we had, packed the rest, and flew to Morocco. We went to learn Arabic, and because we were in love with the desert, and the mystery of Africa, and traveling. We went to a language school for two months, taking class in the morning and working in the afternoon, her dying cloth and me chopping wood. The jobs didn’t pay much, but we did them more for the experience and the opportunity to learn the language than we did for money. We’ve got enough.” A shy smile. He was proud, almost arrogant, of having “enough”.
“After two months we decided we knew enough of the language, and the wanderlust was strong, so we bought two camels for a hundred bucks each and started to tour the country. For six months we went everywhere we could think of, climbing high into the Atlas mountains, smoking the most amazing hash, coming back down and lounging on the beach, haunting old cities, looking for old movie sets, talking with people.
We were in the middle of a two week trip into the back country when we realized she was pregnant. It would be our first child, and neither of us wanted anything to go wrong. We hadn’t planned for it, but it also seemed romantic to have a baby in the desert.” He blushed. It was hard to imagine him saying “romantic”.
“We came in to re-supply in Fez, in the north. As we came into the town, we realized something was wrong. There had been some problems with the government, but neither of us had given it thought. Fez was tense, guys in the streets with AK’s, people hurrying everywhere, you didn’t go outside without a purpose. We left Fez with the rising sun, after a hot, uneasy night. Sketchy. We made camp a about an hour beyond town, hobbled the camels, unrolled our blankets, and built a fire. After a long night of talking and thinking, our options were three. One, to stay in Morrocco and continue our trip by camel. We had three and a half months left on our visa, and we felt it was a shame to waste the time and run home as soon as we felt a little threatened. Two, to walk back into town, hire a taxi and go straight to the airport, flying back to California the next day and damn the expense. It was probably the wisest option, but our least favorite. Three, if we could neither continue our trek nor fly out of the country, we would try and cross the border to Algeria and find a flight out.
We decided to sleep on it, go back to town, re-assess the situation and make a decision. Early the next morning we woke, broke camp, and by late afternoon were on the outskirts of Fez.
The town was on fire. As we got closer, we began to meet people going the direction we were coming from. We asked them, “What’s going on?” and they answered, “War. The government’s taken the town.” We turned around again and walked back to safety. Our three options had turned to one. We would trek to Algeria.
After two weeks of dodging patrols, we crossed the range of mountains that runs down the spine of Morocco, and were days away from the border. We took shelter outside an old goat corral and lay down to rest. We were tired, but not beat. Hungry, but not starving. At that point, we were basically two kids having a bitchin’ time, a little scared, but enjoying everything.”
“We woke to kicks and slaps, the camels screaming, and gunshots. At first we thought we had been caught by a random government patrol, and prayed at least for some kind of legal process, a trial, anything.
It was clear after a few grunts in Arabic that these weren’t government, but bandits. Hell, they were doing more or less what I’d have been doing in their shoes. Taking advantage of the economic situation. Looking back, I can’t say I blamed them, and it ended being great karma that we we
re captured, but what happened after…”
He paused. “Well. What happened after, eh? They kept us for two days, and at sunrise on the third, after the morning call to prayer, we were taken to a thick wooden post planted firmly in the ground and tied bac
k to back. A line of men faced us from ten yards away, all carrying automatic rifles, AK-47’s. We were going to be shot. Neither of us could speak.”
The surfer stopped talking.
“Jesus”, I said.
He looked at me, coming back from his story. “Not exactly a morning session kind of story, eh?”
“She spoke up that day, my chick, and saved us. She’d been reading the Koran for ages, was all into that funky religious shit, you know how some people are, searching for God, looking for something. She found it, found it that morning, and pulled us back from the other side.”
“She was taking fast, stumbling over herself but at the same time very clear, and it took me a while to make the transition back to Arabic; we had been talking in English since we left Fez. I had to pay attention and translate in my head what she was saying. Apparently there’s some old fuckin’ ceremony for prisoners in the desert, from the Koran or some fuckin’ book, something to give them one last shot.”
He half smiled, and I knew right then that he was immensely proud of himself and embarrassed at the same time for whatever had happened that day in the desert.
“The deal is, and you’ll want to remember this if you’re ever rounded up some dark African night,”. A quick smile. “Remember to request the seven days to freedom. Or, maybe not.”“The seven days bit is a lie.” A quick grimace.
“You ever seen a camel up close?”, he asked.
“At the zoo, not close.”
“They’re big animals, man, and stubborn. Gotta whip ’em sometimes to get ’em to do what you want. You use a camel whip, leather, ’bout three, four feet long, braided at one end for a handle. Other end is a hard, two-inch wide strip.”
“For seven days, one man, a volunteer, can take punishment from a camel whip. Nine lashes a day, five in the morning, four in the afternoon. During those seven days the man may make no sound, and is allowed no food. If, after seven days, those conditions have been satisfied, the captors are obliged to free their captives. Nothing more.” He cleared his throat. “Fuckers are harsh.”
He turned and stretched, a calculated movement. His white scars stood out in the sun.
“Sixteen days”, he said.
“If you make a sound, or eat, you start over. Once you begin, you succeed. Or…” His voice faded.
“Usually, you die.”
Jesus H. Christ. Who the fuck was I talking to? The moment seemed surreal. The sun reflected off the water, the wind was beginning to pick up, offshore, a rarity. I looked around. We were surrounded by other surfers, listening to the story. They had paddled over unnoticed as they caught bits and pieces.
“You smoke pot, man?”, the stranger asked. I looked at him in dumb confusion. “What?”
“Dope, man, d’you smoke fuckin weed?” Off balance, I answered. “Yeah, when I can get it.” “Don’t ever let those fuckers tell you dope’s bad, brotha, it got me through”.
“Two days into it, I was delirious. They left me tied to the post, tied my chick to another one. She
tried to help me when they whipped, but couldn’t get near. She was chained up so she could get close to me, maybe five feet away, no farther. They fed her, talked to her, shot the shit. It was so wild, here I was getting whaled on, and five feet away, five fuckin’ feet, my girlfriend is talking about the rights of women. Fuckin’ chicks.” He smiled, and in that instant I saw everything good and noble about him. I can’t explain it, not even now with a computer screen in front of me, safe and warm in my own house, with the distant sound of waves coming through the kitchen window. I saw a guy give a bum a hot sandwich on a cold winter night once, that guy had the same look on his face, like… redemption. I don’t know.
The stranger started talking again.
“After three days I had nothing left, no food in my gut, no fat on me, no reserve. The dope kicked in. All the hash we’d smoked in the mountains, before she was pregnant, before the war, before we were caught, came out of what was left of me, and I was in love with mankind, man, I was high as a kite, higher than I’d ever been. When they hit me I’d smile, and imagine my chick was just peeling skin off my back after a sunburn, me on my belly, her on top, straddling, on the beach right here, at Trestle’s. That’s what got me the extra days. On the fifth day I yelled out, “Harder, Achmed, I can’t feel it.” I don’t know if he understood what I said, but I felt it that day. The seven days started over.”
“Four days later, the same thing. My chick was screaming at me when she saw me open my mouth, she knew what was happening, she was watching me fade, it was bad, you know. Right after I said it, something smart-ass again, you know, “Come on, take me to the next level”, I saw her mouth open. I couldn’t hear anything, but I knew I’d fucked up. Because.”
“It wasn’t hurting ME, man. I was beyond. I was at the next level. I couldn’t feel it. But it was her. She was pregnant, watching me, watching her man being beaten to death, and she was so brave, women are strong, man, and she’d figured out how to get through, knowing how men are, and me, and how we like a challenge, how we all want to be tested, how we all want to be The Few. And I was fucking it up.”
The guy was crying. Right in the middle of about a hundred surfers, waves piling up, passing under us, you could see the heads bobbing up and down, we were all a part of the ocean then, a part of each other, feeling this guy’s story. It was incredible, I’ll never forget it. The sun, the cold water, the scars on his back, a light offshore breeze just rippling the water. It was a day to surf, but we were all listening. Mesmerized.
“Seven days later I won. They cut the straps that held me to that block of wood and I fell over like a bag
of shit. My chick was on top of me, crying, and I could feel her tears hitting my bones, I saw pieces of my skin on the ground around the post, and my blood, and the rest…
I don’t remember what happened until I landed in Madrid.”
“She did it all after that. She told me after they cut me down they just walked away. We had nothing. No camels, no food, no water. Man, I’ll always hold the door for a chick, every one of them deserves, fuckers are strong. I would’ve lain there till the birds come, but she picked me up and tromped off to some village. Got a taxi to some dirt runway airport, sweet talking about fifty people along the way, got to Algiers, got on another plane to Madrid, called my folks, got money wired in, and I was home four days after I was cut off that post. Three years ago, that was.”
“Got two kids now, the one we made in the desert and one from here. Figure I’ll tell ’em when they ask. Figure I’ll tell anyone when they ask, you know?”
He looked at me.
“Jesus. What’d you do when you got back?”
“Nothing really. I laid on my belly for a while.” Short laugh. “Don’t really do anything now. A little gardening, watch the kids. Surf. The chick supports us. Got a website for desert explorers, you know. Figured she doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt like us. Great chick. The best.”
He turned, and I saw his back again. “Jesus.”
He lay on his board and gave three or four deep strokes as a mammoth wave rolled through. He shot by fifty surfers in twenty yards, the pack that had surrounded him. Standing up fluidly, he gave a whoop, a quick turn back, a smile. All of us watched, seeing him disappear behind a wave, riding freedom, untouched. It was a long wave, and he rode it all the way to the beach. He jumped off his board, picked it up and splashed through the shallows to the tow-headed little boy running towards him. I couldn’t hear anything, he was maybe 200 yards away. A light haired woman came walking down the beach toward him, carrying another kid, a baby.
I turned, and caught a wave.